In 1977, Lawrence Weiner created an invitation for Having been marked with (i.e. decorated), having been decorated with (i.e. marked), with a probability of being seen, his upcoming exhibition at Konrad Fischer Gallery. Its unwieldy title is typical of Weiner’s work, which uses language as a material to construct imagery in the mind of the viewer, and organizationally it is divided into three labels: one in English, one in German, and one with a combination of the two languages. One copy of the invitation is now in the collection of Bowes Library at Stanford University, marking it as an object worth saving. But to a recipient of the invitation in 1977, this decision wouldn’t have been as clear-cut. Is the invitation a work of art, an archival document, or junk mail destined for the wastebin? When considering an object such as an invitation, this determination often depends upon how much time has passed since the item was mailed, the artist’s historical recognition, and the judgment of the person doing the sorting, among many other subjective or indefinite factors.
Art/Object considers works in the collections of the Cantor Arts Center and Bowes Library that raise such tricky issues of classification and preservation. This exhibition grew out of my research on ephemera, a fuzzy and shifting category described by media scholar Mary Desjardins as “throwaways not thrown away.” The artworks in this show raise similar questions of definition, encompassing editions, certificates, posters and placards, invitations, postcards, and preparatory documents: things that fall between the cracks of obvious medium categories. They point to the way an artist’s practice often flows across media, with ideas or aesthetics explored through a variety of formats without regard for the hierarchies and category divisions of critics and collecting institutions.
In the 1960s and 1970s, artists increasingly created time-based performances, instructions and event scores, and language-based constructions. The materials for these works were intentionally inexpensive, designed to disappear or otherwise complicate the division between the supposedly rarified world of art and the actions, sounds, and sights of daily life. While artists have long used media from popular culture and modern city life—Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s collages incorporating excerpts of newspaper headlines come to mind—Conceptual and performance artists from the Vietnam War era heightened this practice, making works that were difficult to preserve or categorize according to the conventional definitions of museums and art history. The transience and nebulous medium status of new art objects were key to their democratic potential, since a deck of cards or a typed notecard could be circulated widely due to their reproducibility and low cost, in a way that a monumental painting could not.
In the decades that followed, artworks that blurred the boundaries between media became increasingly common, but questions of labeling and sorting lingered. Classifying an invitation, to return to the earlier example, as a print versus an archival document is no small decision, since the categorical schemas imposed by archives, libraries, and museums speak to the values of these particular institutions. And on a more practical level, these medium labels affect the ways in which objects are displayed, their availability to scholars and the public, and the frequency (or infrequency) with which they are exhibited, thereby shaping the audience’s view of artistic developments of the recent past.
This online exhibition invites you to contemplate the fluidity of artistic practice through four thematic sections: images across objects, the artist’s hand, supplements, and everyday things made anew. It features several videos of objects being handled and manipulated, allowing you to better understand their scale and tactility. The items presented here have an obvious usefulness that more straightforward paintings or sculptures lack. They serve purposes of documentation (as in a certificate of authenticity and a capstone), play (playing cards and a pop-up book), and communication (a postcard and several posters), charting the blurred boundaries between artworks and everyday objects.